Among the pleasures of a prolonged life, as I have had occasion to mention before, is the rereading of books whose memory lingers on. Sometimes the renewal of acquaintance dispels the pleasure, but certainly not always. When I go back to Henry James, my preference is for the earlier novels, those that came before the excessive obliquity due perhaps to the fact that he came to dictate rather than write. Having lived into a time when one fears that the mention of Henry James will bring the question, “But what was his last name?,” I am all the more inclined to sing his praises.
The hero of James’s The American, having made his pile in his native land, goes to Europe for a dose of leisure and culture. His name is Henry Newman, and in Paris, he falls in love with Claire de Cintre, a young Catholic widow of an old, aristocratic, and Catholic family, and sets about wooing her, despite the family’s negative reaction to this moneyed barbarian, as they think him to be. Somewhat improbably, the family permits Newman to pursue his suit. Eventually, he proposes and is accepted, but then shortly before the wedding, the family comes to its aristocratic senses and vetoes the idea. Claire takes her revenge by entering the Carmelites. End of the affair.
Edwin Sill Fussell, in his fascinating The Catholic Side of Henry James (Cambridge University Press, 1993), has chronicled James’s lifelong fascination with Catholicism and the way it shows up in story after story, something anticipated by Graham Greene in several essays on James, written early in his life as a Catholic. The American appeared in book form in 1876, and it provides an interesting array of lay Catholics, most of them Newman’s social superiors. It must have given James a frisson to present a WASP as the target of the class snobbery of titled Catholics. Perhaps in compensation, the narrative is seasoned with mandatory digs at the Irish. But Fussell has noticed other things.
Written during the lifetime of the famous cardinal, the hero’s name, Henry Newman, is noteworthy, as is his self-description as a “muscular Christian,” a phrase taken from Charles Kingsley, Newman’s defamer, and the occasion for the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. If James’s Newman had succeeded in marrying Claire, he would likely have become a Catholic. This possibility, while unstressed in the novel, was a constant source of drama for James, as Fussell notes: “The lurid topic of Catholic conversion in the writings of the young Henry James by no means requires a conversion be consummated, only that it be threatened.” When it comes to imagining life in a convent, James pulls out all the Maria Monk stops, the better to send chills down the spines of his Protestant readers.
The choice of a contemplative vocation as a girl’s revenge on her family for preventing her marriage could perhaps be made plausible, but James is clearly over his head in trying to understand Catholic spirituality. When Newman goes into a church, he does not pray because he has nothing to ask for. When Claire’s brother, the victim of a duel, receives the last rites, the scene never comes into clear focus. In the convent, Claire and her sisters are portrayed as constantly wailing the equivalent of the Dies Irae, eating their hearts out for their lost lovers. But this opacity in James leads to other thoughts.
The American Protestant could indulge an interest in things Catholic in Europe—as English writers could when on the continent—where the attraction of what they had been taught to feel negatively toward made itself felt. Their reaction, as Fussell chronicles in the case of James, was one of fascinated dread, the fear of succumbing and going over to Rome. But the caricature of the religious life in The American is unworthy of James. He was writing in France during the lifetime of the Little Flower but shows no sense at all of what nuns do in enclosed convents. Has American Catholicism become so muscular that we too have lost the sense of what those who have chosen the better part do? Surely it is no accident that Therese of Lisieux and Teresa of Avila, as well as Catherine of Siena, have been named Doctors of the Church. What would James have made of that? What do we?